The Old Ashburn Place, by Margaret Flint
Review by Maureen Theobald
(New York: Dodd Mead, 1936)
A small rural community in Maine is the backdrop for this moving novel. In it, Margaret Flint very capably chronicles the lives of the Ashburn family in the late 1800s. In a beautiful setting on the side of Pigeon Mountain, the hard working farm Ashburn family struggles with the common problems of agricultural life, particularly those associated with maintaining a small dairy operation. As is a common theme in many Midwest rural novels, the trials and tribulations of dealing with nature’s fickle moods is an issue the family deals with day in and day out. Although the severe extremes of hard Midwestern weather don’t exist in the more moderate climate of central Maine, farm families everywhere must deal with weather-related exigencies.
Pa and Ma work hard and raise to raise five children, three boys and two girls. The two older boys work the farm with their father, while the family hopes the youngest boy will concentrate on his education; and indeed, he eventually becomes the only member of the Ashburn clan to attend and graduate from the state university. The two girls grow into women with lives and families of their own, while the drama with Pa and his two eldest sons becomes the main focus of the story.
When Ma dies in middle age, Pa settles into a state of moderate melancholy for the remainder of his life, while tolerating the annoying, but helpful neighbor, Alviry. She insists on moving in to help the family with housework, child care, cooking, etc., however her true motives are in claiming Pa for her own. She accepts the roles she takes on with enthusiasm until she realizes Pa has no interest in her other than that of a hired woman. She stays on with the family, but her bitterness and resentment slowly grow.
Morris, as the eldest son, decides he should do what is expected of him and marries Elsie, a neighbor girl who wants nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and is content to settle into the Ashburn household, and become the “woman of the house.” With this event, Alviry accepts the fact that she has been “replaced”, and leaves in despair, finally admitting to herself that there is no hope for her in terms of a relationship with Pa. Elsie makes a good attempt at being the wife and mother that Morris deserves, but soon grows more and more dissatisfied, as her neglectful husband realizes he has no sincere feelings of love for the mother of his two children.
Charlie, the second son, works alongside his Pa and Morris. Women don’t seem to be a priority in his life, and he continues to be the good brother, son, and uncle to Morris’s two children. When Pa dies, the family is shaken, but they know they have no choice but to carry on, and the household dwindles to Morris, Charlie, Elsie, and the children. The Saturday night dances held in town are one of the few escapes most of the rural families can take advantage of, and it is at these dances that young men and women can sometimes find their only chance for romance. When Charlie is nagged into going into town with Morris and Elsie, he is pleasantly surprised to find that Marian Parks had grown into a lovely young woman, and although the little neighbor girl from over the hill was from a much wealthier family, he feels completely comfortable approaching her. He finds her “coquettish” behavior encouraging, and they enter what becomes over the years, a frustrating and painful relationship for Charlie. She comes in and out of his life when she visits “back home” from the State University, teasing him with her flirtatious personality, but departing each time with an air of aloofness and barely a “good-bye” for the frustrated and confused Charlie. To add insult to injury, Morris, too, becomes smitten with Marian, as she seems to enjoy seducing him on the dance floor. Not only does Elsie notice the attention that Marian gives to both brothers, she becomes spitefully jealous and hateful of all three. The drama that unfolds under the roof of the Ashburn household eventually leads to a sordid affair between Elsie and Charlie, and the eventual break-up of the once happy home.
The common theme of unrequited love that runs through the novel sets a tone of sadness that many farm novels seem to share. For instance, the process of settling into marriages that aren’t always based on sincere love, but rather a basic need for survival, is described quite often. The Old Ashburn Place is certainly an example of this. The need to raise large families to simply provide a “labor force” seems to lead to lives of “acceptance,” although not always contentedness.
The book did provide for me some of the enjoyment I’ve come to look for in most of these older novels. My love of nature is often the reason I find the most memorable part of these books to be the descriptions of the simple pristine countryside, the clean blue lakes, the icy cold streams that are safe enough to drink from, and wild berries and fruit free for the picking. As “progress” has eliminated many of these simple joys, and rolling hills have been replaced by concrete, it’s nice to know that we can let our imagination be entertained by saving and savoring these wonderful old books.